Almost exactly 20 years ago, in January of 1999, The Sopranos debuted on HBO and changed the course of pop culture. It was an inflection point: The Sopranos ushered in the age of antihero TV, the era of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, a period when some of the most prestigious, highly acclaimed shows on television were shows about terrible people doing terrible things. It was an era when an enormous amount of our culture’s aesthetic attention was focused on what makes people bad and what it means to be a bad person — and on the illicit pleasure of watching other people do bad things.
At the tail end of 2018, things have changed. Our cultural focus isn’t on bad people doing bad things anymore. There are still antihero shows, but they’re not as buzzy or wildly acclaimed as they were just 10 years ago. Instead, some of the most interesting and critically renowned shows of the past year have focused, with relentless, unstinting energy, on the question of what it means to be good.
On The Good Place, the only way to really become good is to do it without the hope of a reward
The granddaddy of the good person shows — and arguably the best one — is NBC’s The Good Place, a sitcom that is also a series of debates about ethical philosophy. It’s about a group of mildly awful people who, over the course of three seasons, travel between heaven, hell, and Earth, always trying to become better, even though they know that the system they’re working within does not allow for the possibility of moral change.
The Good Place is set in a moral universe that assumes people cannot change who they are without impetus, that good people stay good and bad people stay bad — which is, more or less, the philosophy of the classic antihero show. There is no version of The Sopranos where Tony Soprano could become a better person over time. He always gets worse.
But The Good Place challenges that idea, repeatedly. Over the course of the show’s three seasons (so far), its main characters have worked consistently to become better people, and over time, they have begun to do so for less and less selfish reasons.
When the show premiered, main character Eleanor (Kristen Bell) was trying to become a better person out of sheer self-preservation. She believed that she’d been sent to the Good Place after her death because of a clerical error, and to keep anyone from recognizing that she was an imposter, she needed to learn how to act like a good person. When she talked an ethical philosopher into tutoring her on how to be good, her only motivation was that she didn’t want to be found out and have to spend eternity in hell.
But Eleanor’s decision, early on in season one, to act on the things she learned — to try to actually become a good person and not just someone who knows how to fake being good; to confess to the higher powers that she’s not actually meant to be in the Good Place — threw everyone involved in the afterlife for a loop.
Because if Eleanor can actually be a good person, that means she can change. She can become better, even after she’s dead. And that means there’s a flaw in the system as it exists.
As The Good Place has zigzagged its way through a long string of plot twists and resets and reversals, it has taken away all of its characters’ selfish motivations for trying to be better people.
In the first half of the (currently airing) third season, the main cast was alive again — and because they knew about the afterlife, they were ineligible to earn points for their good deed that could send them to the Good Place once they died again. They were doomed to go to hell no matter what, and trying to be good people on earth would do nothing to help them.
“The six of us are not getting into the Good Place,” concludes Eleanor. But, she adds, they can still try to be good people — and help other people to be good, too. “There are still people in this world that we care about, so I say we try and help them be good people. Try and help them get in [to the Good Place]. I mean, why not try? It’s better than not trying, right?”
That’s the basic ethos of The Good Place: You might as well try to be a good person, because it’s better than not trying. Even with no guarantee of success, it doesn’t hurt to try. And maybe, even though being a good person is hard, and boring, and the rewards are minimal and it’s basically impossible to permanently change who you are and there will always be times when it feels easier and more fun to do the wrong thing — maybe you’ll still be able to do it. Maybe you’ll change. Maybe you’ll become a better person after all.
What’s thrilling about The Good Place is that it takes it as a given that this struggle to become a better person is just as interesting and compelling, just as worthy of aesthetic attention, as the nihilistic downward spiral of a white man at the center of an antihero show.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend started as an antihero show. Now it’s something else.
Sometimes you can see the pivot from the focus on bad to the focus on good within the same show. When Crazy Ex-Girlfriend premiered in 2015, it looked to all the world like an antihero show — albeit an antihero show about a woman, rather than a man, and one with a peppy candy-colored shell over top of its bleak, nihilistic heart.
“She’s like this bubbly Walter White,” said series co-creator and star Rachel Bloom in 2016, comparing her character Rebecca, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s protagonist and the titular crazy ex-girlfriend, to the meth-dealing antihero of Breaking Bad. “You know she’s wrong the whole time.”
At that point in the show, Rebecca was obsessively stalking her ex-boyfriend as part of a deranged plot to get back together with him, and it was indeed clear to the audience that she was wrong the whole time. Rebecca was sympathetic and she was compelling, but she was also an almost cartoonishly awful person. When she sang, “I’m a good person,” she had to hold her audience at knifepoint to get them to agree with her; when she sang, “I’m the villain in my own story,” it was with a sinking sense of recognition that she was telling the truth.
And like a classic antihero, Rebecca kept gesturing toward reforming herself. Throughout Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s first two seasons, she would often say that she could see that what she was doing wasn’t healthy — and every time, the audience could think that maybe this time Rebecca would realize that she was just projecting her desire for happiness onto Josh and would stop stalking him. (Maybe Don Draper won’t cheat on this wife! Maybe Walter White will take his rich friend’s offer to pay for his cancer treatment and stop dealing meth!)
But every time it looked like Rebecca was about to step forward, she ended up taking two steps backward into her worst self instead (oh, nope, instead Rebecca had empty sex with a stranger and then infiltrated Josh’s family Thanksgiving with a hidden camera in her jewelry). This was a version of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that seemed to clearly be made in the mold of The Sopranos, where the narrative arc would be that of a bad person growing steadily worse.
But over the past two seasons, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has gradually evolved its ethos. It’s given Rebecca more chances to reform — and slowly, over time, she’s starting to take them.
Rebecca isn’t just vaguely “crazy” now. She has a diagnosis (borderline personality disorder), and a therapist and a treatment plan. And she’s using her mental health support to try to improve herself. “Being a better person — I want to do that, somehow,” she said this fall in the show’s season four premiere.
On an antihero show, expressing the desire to be a better person would be the precursor to yet another downward spiral. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s fourth season, it has led to Rebecca taking responsibility for her actions, dealing with the consequences, and forging a new way forward in life.
The project of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not to look at the dark inner heart of humanity, or how our cultural obsession with love warps us. It is to say, “Is it possible to actively work to become a better person after doing terrible things?” And the conclusion it seems to be coming to is that yes, it is. What’s more, it seems to be concluding that the work involved in becoming a better person can be as interesting a TV show premise as the hijinks that come with joyfully embracing the worst parts of yourself.
Queer Eye is a reality show with an on-staff social worker
The antihero show’s sleazy younger sibling has always been reality TV. Or more specifically, reality TV in the Real Housewives model — reality TV that is built around watching terrible people be dramatically terrible to one another. If shows like The Sopranos made art out of looking at humanity’s potential to do harm, shows like The Real Housewives made a trashy, cathartic spectacle out of it.
But over the past few years, many of the buzziest reality TV shows have skewed more and more wholesome, toward the pastoral charms of The Great British Baking Show and the defiant joy of RuPaul’s Drag Race. And in 2018, the buzziest reality TV show of all was the one that was explicitly devoted toward turning its subjects into better versions of themselves. It was Netflix’s newly rebooted Queer Eye.
Like its early 2000s forerunner, Queer Eye is ostensibly a makeover show. Every episode sees the “Fab Five” take over the life of a hapless subject — often but not always a straight guy — and teach him how to dress, groom himself, take care of his house, and cook a few meals.
But this version of Queer Eye is not just focused on making its subjects better-looking, but on helping them be better people, too. This aim built into the structure of the show: The Fab Five include a clothes expert and a grooming expert, as well as a licensed social worker with a background in psychotherapy. (That’s probably why Karamo Brown’s “cultural activities,” like talking the week’s hero into buying tickets to a play, always seem vaguely like bullshit. Despite what the credits say, his role on the show isn’t actually to encourage cultural enrichment; it’s to get people to talk about what’s holding them back and then to make them cry.)
Interior improvement is the arc of each episode: A Donald Trump-supporting police officer has a conversation with a black guy about why black people might be scared of cops. A gay man who’s afraid to come out to his stepmother gets to a place where he can tell her the truth about himself. A guy who didn’t graduate college as planned and lied to his parents about it finds a way to be honest with his mom and begin putting together a strategy to find himself a new job.
Do the changes that the Fab Five inspire in their subjects last past the end of the episode? Who can say! But the fantasy that Queer Eye is selling is that those changes do last, and that the audience, sitting at home, can make those same kinds of changes themselves. Queer Eye is a show about the fantasy of becoming a better person, and it suggests that all you need to do to make that fantasy come true is accept a little bit of help.
It’s not a coincidence that under the Trump administration, morality has become a theme in pop culture
In 2018, the antihero trend lost momentum as pop culture decided that the question of how to become a good person was worthy of being the object of sustained aesthetic interest.
That shift has everything to do with the Trump administration. In 2018, many people no longer needed to fantasize about bad people doing bad things and getting away with it and becoming steadily badder. It didn’t feel sexy and taboo anymore, because it was pretty common in real life.
What many people needed to fantasize about instead was the idea of bad people working to become good people, about the idea that real, lasting moral change for the better is possible and worth striving for.
In the current political climate, it’s not always appealing to watch a show about a selfish person scamming her way into heaven, or a woman stalking her ex-boyfriend, or a sad lonely person getting mocked. It’s much more satisfying and cathartic to watch the selfish person genuinely try to help other people, even when there’s nothing in it for her; to watch a recovering stalker enter therapy and take responsibility for her actions; to watch sad and lonely people connect with others and get help.
That fantasy offers us the hope that we no longer have to be supporting characters in the story of rich and powerful white men acting depraved and amoral. We can take control of the story, and we can make it a story of people working hard to be good. Even if only in fiction.